Back in the spring of 2008, a 20-year-old from Serbia named Ana Ivanovic transformed from one of the WTA’s brightest young stars to a household name.
Ivanovic had already reached two Grand Slam finals, the 2007 French Open and the 2008 Australian Open, but had yet to be crowned a champion at one of the sport’s four majors.
At the 2008 French Open, Ivanovic broke through and defeated Russia’s Dinara Safina 6-4, 6-3 for the first Grand Slam trophy of her career.
“It was obviously an amazing experience—the highlight of my career—and something that I always dreamed about,” said Ivanovic. “It happened when I was quite young, I wasn’t expecting it so soon, and I had no idea what to expect. Now I am much older, I would probably appreciate it even more, because I understand better just how hard it is to achieve.”
The win helped catapult Ivanovic to the top of the world rankings, where she would remain for nine weeks.
Now a mainstay atop the WTA Women’s Singles Rankings, Ivanovic is one of the more popular players in the women’s game. Much of her success can be attributed to her upbringing and the dedication she developed for the sport at a very young age.
Ivanovic came from humble beginnings. She was born in Belgrade, Serbia when it was a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. With the country in midst of the Kosovo War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launched a bombing campaign against the Republic of Yugoslovia.
This bombardment forced Ivanovic to train in the early mornings. And because there were no tennis facilities, she often found herself practicing and training inside an abandoned swimming pool.
“The facilities in Serbia were really not good, but the opportunity to train in the empty swimming pool was something that was always the highlight of my day—I always looked forward to it,” recalls Ivanovic. “And it’s not like we were hitting against the walls of the pool—there was one big court, and two small ones. We agreed not to hit too many cross-court shots on the small courts, because then you would hit the walls!”
These training conditions, Ivanovic noted, are what helped her become the passionate and determined player she is today.
“Of course we were aware that other countries had better facilities, but we could only make the best of what we had,” said Ivanovic. “The Serbian mentality is one that is very determined … we are aware that you have to work hard to achieve something. That’s the mindset that has shaped me as a player more than anything else. I believe it is a cultural thing.”
Ivanovic has not forgotten her roots, and still spends a great deal of her time helping the youth in her home country. In 2007, she became a UNICEF National Ambassador for Serbia, a position she takes great pride in.
“I love spending time with kids and have done so throughout my adult life,” said Ivanovic. “It seems like a natural fit for me, to work with UNICEF. At the same time, it was an incredible honor when they asked me to become an ambassador. It’s definitely one of the biggest honors I have ever received. I take the role very seriously, as I understand the responsibility of being asked to be a role model. Whenever I’m in Serbia, I try to take part in UNICEF events. I am involved with a program called School Without Violence. We often organize workshops in classrooms, talking about bullying and how to deal with violence in schools, whether it is verbal or physical.”
Her dedication to charitable causes is symbolic of the determined mindset she developed while growing up in Serbia. That same mindset has driven her to become one of the best players in the world and why she continues to strive for greatness on the WTA Tour.
After a great start to 2015, reaching the finals at the Brisbane International in January, Ivanovic’s play has dipped in recent months, something she says has disappointed her up to this point.
“It started very well in Brisbane, but the last few months have not been satisfactory,” Ivanovic said of her 2015 season. “I’ve been battling a couple of small injuries and struggling to find the time to rest and fully recover, considering the tournament commitments. When I’ve been healthy, I have not really been satisfied with my performance. There is definitely a lot of hard work to do to get into a position to compete for the title at Roland Garros, which, of course, is my goal.”
Her clay court season didn’t start the way she would have liked; losing to Caroline Garcia in the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix first round in April, but the clay surface is something the Serb is comfortable playing on.
“I grew up playing on clay in Serbia, so I am very used to it and comfortable on this surface,” Ivanovic said. “I am fortunate that my game suits all surfaces. I am an aggressive player, and usually a faster court would be the one that best suits my game, but actually, I’ve had my best results on clay. The mindset is a bit different as you have to be more patient and accept that you have to fight for each point.”
Leg strength and conditioning is something Ivanovic has stressed in her workouts to prepare for the strain put on the legs from playing on clay.
As we approach the start of the second major tournament of the 2015 season, Ivanovic is ready to make a deep run at the French Open in Roland Garros, a venue at which she has experienced much success.
The Serb has family who live in Melbourne, Australia and while she loves the city and would inevitably love to win a Grand Slam in front of her family and fans at the Australian Open, the French Open will always be at the top of her list.
“It has always been my favorite,” Ivanovic said of Roland Garros. “It is where I reached my first Grand Slam quarterfinal, in my debut year in 2005, and also my first final, in 2007. It was my first Grand Slam win and it’s also where I became number one in the world. So Paris will always be a very special city for me.”
Ivanovic will try to use her past success and experience to help her make a deep run in Paris this spring in hopes of adding another French Open trophy to her list of accolades.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org